Academic and Educational Interpreting from the Other Side of the Classroom: Working with Deaf Academics

In Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters, external link A New Paradigm, external link. (Hauser, Finch & Hauser, 2008) Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Linda Campbell; School of Environmental Studies, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Meg J. Rohan; School of Psychology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
Kathryn Woodcock; School of Occupational and Public Health, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada

Excerpt: Sign Language interpreting in universities and other postsecondary educational institutions typically involves the facilitation of classroom communications between Deaf or hard of hearing students and their hearing instructors. The interpreter can prepare for the classroom, laboratory courses, and student-instructor meetings by learning the course material and compiling technical signs that are associated with the material that generally is clearly defined by the classroom syllabi (e.g., Caccamise and Lang 1996). But there are two sides to every university classroom: one side concerns the student; the other concerns the instructor. What are the guidelines for interpreters who are working in universities, not at the student side of the classroom but at the academic side? The Deaf person in this academic role will have academic responsibilities other than teaching, and interpreters will have little or no experience or understanding of these often complex, high-level roles. At present, there is little or no direction or publications for interpreters who work with a Deaf academic.

Two types of settings are relevant to the Deaf academic who is working in mainstream universities. Educational interpreting involves facilitation of communication between an academic instructor and hearing students (or deaf students not familiar with sign language) within the particular context of a course. For interpreters who have experienced interpreting from the students’ side of the classroom, the familiarity of the situation may be deceptive when they are interpreting from the academic’s side of the classroom. The dynamics may involve one-on-one student meetings that may vary from oral examinations to academic counseling to investigations of cheating. Academic interpreting involves facilitation of communication in situations outside of the classroom. These activities do not generally involve students. This category, too, involves a wide variation of communication situations that may include staff meetings, conferences, data gathering in a wide variety of research settings, or formal and informal celebrations with colleagues, other professionals, or the general public. These communication situations generally are high level and are likely to involve very specialized knowledge, not only of content but also of implicit social rules. Academic interpreting resembles the interpreting that takes place in business environments in which the Deaf professional also has high status.

Both educational and academic interpreting may be required not only by the fully qualified Deaf academic but also by graduate students (i.e., those who have already completed an undergraduate degree and who are studying for either Masters or Ph.D. degrees and serving as instructors in courses). The distinction between the two types of interpreting is necessary because interpreting strategies that work in the context of educational interpreting will not necessarily work or be appropriate in the context of academic interpreting.

The way in which Deaf academics, their colleagues, and their interpreters work together can vary according to the inclusiveness and acceptance of sign language and Deaf culture within their working environments. From the perspective of Deaf academics and interpreters, there are different types of university environments, which we have labeled in the following way: “Deaf” (e.g., Gallaudet University) in which Deaf students, faculty, and all members, whether hearing or Deaf, adopt or espouse Deaf cultural norms; “Deaf-ready” in which support services have been formally established to accommodate Deaf students and in which Deaf faculty may be valued as role models (e.g., California State University-Northridge); “Deaf-aware” in which Deaf students and faculty, because of the nature of the academic field, will find others within their academic unit who are aware of deafness at least on a professional level, even though the university as a whole may or may not be very accommodating.

In the mainstream, apart from institutions in which there is prior familiarity with deafness, there is a distinction between “Deaf-receptive” environments (in which there is little or no experience of deafness among students, staff members, or faculty but in which an attitude of receptiveness is backed up by efforts to learn and provide accommodations) and “Deaf-oblivious” environments (in which there is little or no awareness either professionally or socially of deafness, Deaf students, Deaf staff members, or Deaf academics). Interpreting strategies in each of these environments will differ, particularly because interpreting in Deaf-oblivious and Deaf-receptive settings may come with unique challenges not seen at Deaf-ready or Deaf universities. The focus of this chapter will be on the unique challenges that will be faced in the Deaf-oblivious and Deaf-receptive settings.

Author: Kathryn Woodcock

Dr. Kathryn Woodcock is Professor at Toronto's Ryerson University, teaching, researching, and consulting in the area of human factors engineering / ergonomics particularly applied to amusement rides and attractions (, and to broader occupational and public safety issues of performance, error, investigation and inspection, and to disability and accessibility.